Don’t walk by (Street link)

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Our correspondent in Shanty Town

007I first came across the derelict garages described as a ‘shanty town’ a month or two back. I was out with some councillors and a council officer looking at fly-tipping and dumping problems. I took them down one alley that I knew was normally full of rubbish, then wandered off down another when I came across a part of Milton ward that I had not previously encountered. This was an area, flanked by housing, that contained garages that had clearly not been used to house cars for some time. I could immediately see that some of the garages had been in use, a view substantiated by a resident who told me that it was frequented by the homeless and drug users.

Because this site has been in the local newspapers this week I decided to revisit. I was going to take photographs and do some investigating. I expected a flying visit – I stayed an hour and a half.

I parked up in the Ceylon Road car park and made my way round to the alley that runs along behind the shops and flats between Ceylon Road and Hamlet Court Road. This alley, often strewn with all sorts of rubbish seemed especially blighted this morning. I wandered into the area where there were something like twenty garages, roughly two sets of ten facing each other. Some were in a very bad way, with caved in roofs and all sorts of detritus in them.

Whilst taking a look around I spotted someone in a garage. Crouching to make myself visible under the half-closed garage door I introduced myself to the gentleman who had evidently made this his home, and asked whether I could come in for a chat.

Mr A appeared to be in his early 40s. He told me he had been homeless since February 4th, when he was evicted from his Eastwood flat. He had had a short stay with HARP, and had recently been on the Cliffs, leaving because it was quite cold there. He wanted accommodation. Mr A told me that there were six staying in these garages.

Mr B would like an address – a common theme as the morning went on. He was not able to claim benefits as he had no address (not true for all of the rough sleepers here), and had to beg to get any money. Mr B had been homeless for 19 years.

Mr C had been thrown out of HARP for not engaging. I did question why he had not engaged; he suggested that he had somewhat misunderstood what was required of him, and also said that the rules were too rigid.

Mr D, a 44 year-old, He confessed to having drug issues, and like a number of those here had spent some time in prison. He was another who had spent years on the street.

Ms E, another 44 year old, wanted a roof over her head. She had been homeless for about a year, previously leading a settled life. She was clearly not well, had not eaten much recently, and I suggested that she must see a doctor.

Mr F was another critical of HARP. Mr G, a 33 year old ex-window fitter with young children that he was not seeing regularly explained the vicious circle that was the norm for rough sleepers trying to find work – no home no job, no job no home.

Mr H, at 30, was the youngest I met today. He had been homeless for 3 months since his release from prison. He needed a roof over his head.

Some general themes: Aside from one, a schizophrenic who suffered from claustrophobia, all wanted accommodation. Yet, even the schizophrenic wanted an address – somewhere to leave stuff, etc. His requirements were for a small space to call his own.

There was some criticism of HARP. I attend their trustees meetings (as the Council’s representative) and I have nothing but praise for the organisation, but my opinion was did not entirely tally with those I spoke to today. However, there seemed to be recognition that HARP, in general, were doing a good job.

“They set you up to fail” was what one said of HARP, complaining of too many rules. Another said they were too “black and white” – not enough “grey” with them rules.

“Always worrying about what to eat. How you are going to get food, how you are going to get drinks.” “No address often means no help. Can’t get a place because you can’t get a deposit.”

One guy owed Southend-on-Sea Borough Council £720, and they would not house him because of this debt (says he).

“Drugs numb the pain” said another. I heard stories about rough sleepers being beaten up, kicked, and set on fire.

“Spoke to Family Mosaic yesterday, hopefully they can help.”

A few had mobile phones. I heard how some charged these. It seems you learn a few tricks on the streets.

I was thanked for coming and listening. They were all polite, all very erudite. They need help, but also recognised that (some at least) had made mistakes. Many had seen prison, some were re-offending owing to the need to eat. Many were keen to assure me that the rubbish thereabouts was not their fault – and I can attest to the area being a dumping ground long before the latest batch of rough sleepers had set up home here.

Many had arrived in the last week, although I think it has been used by some for up to a month.

I ended my visit by breaking one of my own rules of not giving in to begging. It was impossible ignoring a request for some money for a drink. I have so much compared to these people.

There is clearly camaraderie amongst those homeless. They do care about having no proper home, not being able to wash, have a toilet, cook, or a place to keep things. They do worry about a lack of regular income. They have problems, and need help. They were happy to talk, and polite. I was pleased I went, pleased to have chatted with them, and hope that in some small way I can make their lives better.

A sea of troubles

Last night I paid a visit to Chalkwell Park Methodist Church. It was a listening and learning exercise. I went to see for myself the work of the churches who cater for Southend’s homeless during the cold winter months. There are seven churches who operate a scheme where each has a day in the week allocated, and on this day they feed and allow twenty to thirty of the homeless to have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.

These night shelters may not be literal life savers (although it never ceases to amaze me how the homeless cope with the temperatures at this time of year) but it does offer succour to those in most desperate need.

Every story is unique. Sometimes the homeless are the engineers of their own misfortune, more often they are victim to the cruellest slings and arrows of outrageous misadventure. I have always counted myself as very lucky; I see all sorts of people with setback, mishap, sorrow, or woe visited on them and can easily see myself in a similar situation.

The people I met with last night may not be a representative example of the homeless, my experience here is so limited that I am unable to pass anything resembling an informed opinion. I can say that those I did speak with cover a range of ages (from those in their twenties to those close to pensionable age). I met people from both sexes, people with a history of employment, home ownership, families. I also met people with a history of substance abuse and those with mental health issues. I met those new to homelessness, as well as those with more experience in this area.

There was a number of factors common to all I spoke with. There was an absence of rancour, a wish for help, everyone was articulate, gentle in manner, and grateful that a politician had wanted to listen to their stories, hear of their concerns, and register their thoughts about what could be done.

There was a sense of collective support, of quiet resignation, of gratitude to the churches for what they were doing, and I was always amazed at the matter of fact way they told of how they were made homeless. If I had been ejected from my home on the most spurious of grounds I would have been angry, yet I did not detect this in those for whom this was a part of their story.

My naivety came through when told of how recovery addicts were often given freebies by dealers eager to see them hooked again. I was shocked to hear of assaults and all sorts of indignities visited on those force to sleep on the streets; stories of being kicked by young drunk revellers, being urinated on, having their few possessions stolen, of rape and assault. Of course, some of the homeless can be pretty unpleasant, but then these are often people with mental health conditions who should be being looked after, not left to fend for themselves in the direst of circumstances. The homeless speak of boredom, of being forgotten or ignored, of being at the very bottom rung of society, yet they do look ahead and dream of a return to normalcy (and I accept that for some this will be a pejorative phrase).

I felt humbled, wondered what I could do to help. I also felt guilty; I left the night shelter after just over two hours and returned to my central heated comfort.

A big thank you to Tony, John, Glyn, Vivienne, Geoff, Julie, Darren, Paul, and others whose names I did not manage to record.